Seth Yi

The ARP Session’s Authority and Responsibility Concerning Public Corporate Worship

How should the Session deal with these providential hinderances? When dealing with such rare and unavoidable circumstances, the Session must clearly be guided by biblical wisdom and principles, objective certainties, and sound reasoning, and not by speculation, worldly wisdom, and unsupported fear. The Session should lean on what is “known” rather than what is “unknown” to determine its decision. The importance of corporate worship demands that clarity, thoughtfulness, and sobriety dictate how the Session wrestles with this “solemn duty.” It should be a matter of last resort to suspend corporate worship.

What is the scope of a Session’s authority regarding a congregation’s public corporate worship?[1] This question primarily relates to the statement found in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church’s (ARP) Form of Government (FOG) concerning the Authorities and Responsibilities of the Session:
6.8 In order to carry out its responsibility, working under the proper jurisdiction of the higher courts, the Session shall: L. Exercise, in accordance with the Directory of Public Worship, authority over the time and place of the preaching and teaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments, and over all other religious services.
Based on the Directory of Public Worship (DPW) “the preaching and teaching of the Word and the administration of the sacrament, and…all other religious services” clearly include the weekly Lord’s Day worship service. Therefore, a Session has the authority in accordance with the DPW[2] to set the time and place of a congregation’s public corporate worship.
The Responsibilities of a Session and the Congregation
A subtle but formal distinction that needs to be recognized in resolving this question is the difference between the responsibility of the Session in setting and calling its[3] members for worship and the response of the members in assembling for worship.[4] Though the visible outcome may be the same for both groups, the question of authority is not. The Session in this instance calls and the members respond. The elders, by virtue of their office,[5] have a greater obligation than the members to gather for worship, but in this instance the Session also acts as a governing body of the congregation. The Session exercises its authority to guard and promote the spiritual welfare of the congregation in setting the time and place for the Lord’s Day worship.[6]
In shepherding the flock of God, the Session is regulated by Scripture and the Standards. The Session should, as caring and wise under-shepherds, take into consideration how its governance affects the members, but that should not be the only or even the primary factor in what the Session determines. The Session must patiently and graciously uphold the directives of Scripture calling God’s people to faithfulness and progressive spiritual maturity. Providential circumstances and individual consciences may prevent all members from responding uniformly, but that should not deter the Session from upholding biblical directives. The lack of ability or commitment of some members to fulfill or submit to the Session must not compromise the authority of Scripture.[7] The Session must demonstrate to the congregation an unswerving commitment to the precepts and principles of Scripture while doing all it can to encourage the congregation in joyful obedience to the Lord. Neither the degree nor the proportion of the congregation’s compliance should persuade the Session to disregard the commandments of Holy Scripture.
Several related topics need to be addressed and clarified in order to determine the scope of a Session’s authority in this sphere. Even within section L, there are qualifications, “in accordance with the Directory of Public Worship” and “the time and place,” that set certain limits to the Session’s authority. Moreover, other portions of the ARP Standards provide vital insights that necessarily regulate this authority.
The Essential Nature of Corporate Worship for a Congregation
This discussion begins within the context of the local congregation. A congregation, a local visible expression of the ARP Church, is defined by the FOG as “a company of Christians, with their children, associated together according to the Scriptures for worship and ministry in the name of Christ.”[8] According to this definition, the two necessary and visible[9] attributes of a congregation are worship and ministry. Therefore, worship[10] is essential in defining what a congregation is; so much so that a congregation that ceases to worship regularly and corporately is on the verge of desisting as a congregation. This fact is confirmed by the FOG 3.21 when it states, “When a congregation becomes so reduced in its membership and strength as to be unable to maintain the ordinances of regular public worship…in the judgment of Presbytery, best served by dissolving the congregation, Presbytery shall formally declare it dissolved” (emphasis added). One of the stated reasons for a Presbytery to dissolve a congregation is its inability to maintain regular public worship. Public worship is so essential to the essence of a congregation that its existence is contingent on its regular[11] gatherings.
The FOG continues to express the purpose of a congregation as being “to glorify God by conducting public corporate worship, bringing the lost to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, building them up in the Christian faith, and preparing them for Christian service” (emphasis added). [12] In summary, the chief end of a congregation is consistent with the chief end of man (WSC Q.1), namely, to glorify God (and to enjoy Him forever). One of the four means (listed with the use of the preposition “by”), and the first, by which a congregation fulfills this purpose is “by conducting public corporate worship.” This first means, along with the other three means,[13] is how a congregation seeks to glorify God. A congregation is not limited to these means alone (as long as they conform to the Bible and our Standards), but they are the primary and necessary means in fulfilling its purpose.
In considering the various means, or ministries as they may be called, of a congregation, what becomes evident is that the other three means can be fulfilled by conducting public corporate worship. In other words, if a congregation is only able to conduct public corporate worship but not the other three means, it is still possible to fulfill its purpose. On the other hand, even if the other three means are being expressed in some other form or ministry, but public corporate worship is not being conducted, then it can be argued based on the inclusive nature of the conjunction “and”[14] that a congregation is not fulfilling its purpose. In fact, there are many para-church ministries that seek to glorify God by performing one or all three of these other means in their efforts in “bringing the lost to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, building them up in the Christian faith, and preparing them for Christian service.”[15] But in fulfilling these ministries they are not rivaling or replacing the church/congregations by conducting public corporate worship services. Public corporate worship is essential to the being and doing of a congregation. It is what defines and directs a congregation as a distinct visible corporate body within a community.
Ten or so years ago, the definition of “public” and “corporate” would have never been questioned or scrutinized by anyone reading the Standards. However, with the technological advancements in media and communication in the recent years, the definitions of these words are being stretched to their breaking point. Even though the FOG allows for members to vote via electronic media,[16] the application of this medium to public corporate worship is an overreach of the clearly intended meaning of the Scriptures and the Standards. The intended meaning of public corporate worship requires that a congregation gather physically in a common location at the same time and not remotely via electronic media. The Scriptures and the Standards clearly establish this view.
The Session’s Responsibility in Calling the Congregation Together
The concluding paragraph of the Preamble of the DPW opens with this statement: “Finally, since this is a directory for the public worship of God’s people as they meet together corporately, we must recognize that public worship flows most beautifully when the people of God also meet with the Lord in private, as individuals or families” (emphasis added). This sentence expresses two points that qualify the scope of a Session’s authority regarding worship services. The expression “as they meet together corporately” clearly indicates that congregants will be physically present for worship based on the meaning of “corporately.”[17] The notion of gathering virtually or remotely via electronic media is excluded by this word. Secondly, “public worship” is maximized (“most beautifully when”) as a corporate gathering with the Lord when His people additionally, “also,”[18] meet with the Lord in “private, as individuals or families.” In other words, public worship, or gathering with the Lord, is distinct from private worship where individuals or families meet with the Lord in separate or remote locations. Thus these private gatherings are neither public nor corporate. Public and private gatherings with the Lord are not intended to compete or be a substitute for the other but to work in concert with each another so that regular private worship enhances and benefits public worship.[19]
Clearly the Session is responsible for gathering[20] the congregation together for public corporate worship. The FOG speaks to this matter directly in stating that it is the Session’s responsibility to: “Assemble the people for worship in the absence of the pastor.”[21] The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines “assemble” as “to bring together (as in a particular place or for a particular purpose).” As it applies to the Session, it is responsible to gather the congregation for public corporate worship at a set time and place. When a congregation has a pastor, he is responsible to “serve with elders in all matters pertaining to the…worship…of the congregation,” this includes specific duties of corporate worship such as: “read the Scriptures; preach the Word;…administer the sacraments; pronounce the blessings of God upon the people.”[22]
The Nature of Corporate Gatherings
Paul’s admonishment to the Corinthians leaves no doubt about defining the corporate nature of congregational worship. They failed to share the Lord’s Supper as a unified body when they came together as a congregation from various households.
But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?…What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up (1 Cor 11:17–22; 14:26 ESV; emphasis added).
The verb συνέρχομαι that Paul uses in 1 Cor 11:17, 18, 20, and 14:26 means to come together, literally to assemble, to gather[23] as the church (ἐκκλησία). The fact that there was a visible division between the “haves” and the “have-nots” (the wealthy and the poor) implies that their gatherings were in body not just in spirit. Their bodily presence was necessary for this division to be manifest. Moreover, in chapter fourteen their gatherings in worship involved the members’ exercise of spiritual gifts by the various individuals who were present. Edmund Clowney provides clarity on this point when he writes:
Corporate worship at Corinth was distinct from gatherings at homes. Paul rebukes them for evident divisions when they came together as a church. The language is definitive: “When you come together as a church [en ekklesia]” (1 Cor. 11:18). This is in distinction from being in their homes. Paul reminds them of the difference of eating meals at home and coming together at the table of the Lord in the fellowship of the church….The very word ekklesia has its Old Testament background in the gathering of the people of God at Sinai to hear God’s spoken word. The church is an assembly, called out of dwellings to stand together before the Lord.…To be sure, the definitive assembly for the church catholic is the assembly in the heavenly Zion (Heb. 12), but for that very reason those with access by faith to the festival assembly of heaven are “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some” (10:25).[24]
No matter how much modern technology advances remote communication, a necessary and essential component of public corporate worship is the physical gathering of God’s people at a common location. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the Session to establish the place, the physical location, where the congregation is to gather for these weekly services.[25]
The Time of Corporate Worship
The Session also has the authority in accordance with the DPW to determine the time of all religious services. However, there are again qualifications that regulate the exercise of this authority. According to the DPW, the time of the weekly public corporate worship is fixed with respect to the day of the week while other matters or circumstances[26] are to be “guided by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.”[27] So the day on which public corporate worship is prescribed is the Lord’s Day, Sunday.[28] This aspect of time for the weekly public corporate worship is not a matter of choice or Christian prudence. On the contrary, the DPW states that it is “necessary that a due proportion of time be set apart for offering to God that worship which He has commanded all people to give. Such worship is to be given individually, in families, and in corporate gatherings of public worship” (emphasis added).[29] Individual, family, and corporate worship are all commanded by God on the Lord’s Day, the “due proportion of time,” and all three forms, inclusively, are to be offered to the Lord.
Indeed, the Session has the authority to call the congregation on other special days for worship, but the Lord’s Day worship is prescribed and required by God’s command.[30] The gathering of the congregation for corporate worship on the Lord’s Day is not a matter of circumstance for the Session to decide. The question of whether or not weekly public corporate worship is to be set by the Session on the Lord’s Day is outside their authority. That decision has been commanded by God.[31] The Creator and Redeemer has revealed in his Word that it is imperative that corporate worship be offered to him on the Lord’s Day. Therefore, when it comes to calling God’s people to corporate worship on the Lord’s Day it is a responsibility and duty, not an option, that the Session must fulfill. It does not have the authority to suspend corporate worship indefinitely or for an undetermined period of time. Such an authority is not granted to the Session.
Dealing with Providential Hinderances
Having established the biblical necessity of the Session to call God’s people to public corporate worship on the Lord’s Day, the issue of providential hinderances needs to be addressed. Chapter four of the DPW (THE SANCTIFICATION OF THE LORD’S DAY) concludes with “it is both the happy privilege and the solemn duty of all God’s people to assemble for worship on the Lord’s Day as they are able” (emphasis added).[32] How does the expression “as they are able” fit with the command of God to offer corporate worship on the Lord’s Day? What sort of providential hinderances might warrant the Session in considering the suspension of corporate worship?
In working through this question, a subtle but necessary distinction needs to be made between the responsibility of the Session and of the congregation. The calling of the congregation for weekly public corporate worship is an exercise of authority that belongs to the Session, not the congregation or members of the congregation. The Session as the ruling court of a local congregation sets the specific time and location of the Lord’s Day corporate worship. The Session’s authority is to be exercised according to the rules of the Scripture and the Standards.
Members of the congregation, on the other hand, have the corresponding responsibility to make every effort to be present for these weekly gatherings because it is both their “happy privilege and solemn duty.” However, there may arise from time to time an exception that prevents a member or several members from being able to assemble with the other members. These exceptions may be occasions of works of necessity and mercy or even unforeseen “acts of God” that occur outside of one’s control (rare and unavoidable as they may be), true providential hinderances. But when these exceptions occur for some members, the rest of the congregation is still required to assemble as long as they are not hindered. If a member can attend despite the inability of others, then he must. Each member must act in accordance with his ability, circumstance, and conscience to honor the Lord.
Moreover, the Session should not suspend corporate worship because a certain percentage or even a majority of the congregation is prevented from assembling. The Session does not have the authority to make that decision based on such unbiblical grounds. The number of congregants who may or may not be present should not determine whether or not the Session calls for corporate worship. No such authority is found in, or by good and necessary consequence deduced from, Scripture. The Lord meets with his people who are gathered for corporate worship regardless of the size.
What about in situations when the safety and health of the congregation is at risk when gathering? How should the Session deal with these providential hinderances? When dealing with such rare and unavoidable circumstances, the Session must clearly be guided by biblical wisdom and principles, objective certainties, and sound reasoning, and not by speculation, worldly wisdom, and unsupported fear. The Session should lean on what is “known” rather than what is “unknown” to determine its decision. The importance of corporate worship demands that clarity, thoughtfulness, and sobriety dictate how the Session wrestles with this “solemn duty.” It should be a matter of last resort to suspend corporate worship.
Providential hinderances such as natural disasters which are objective in some measurable way, along with the effects of them, may pose an immediate and tangible threat to the overall health and safety of the whole congregation so that the Session may suspend corporate worship for a given Lord’s Day.[33] The location of the gathering and/or means of travel may be so hazardous that suspension is the wisest and most loving course of action until the way be cleared to reassemble. In such incidences, it may be prudent for the Session to take into account the local authorities in determining their decision. The Session may defer to the civil authorities who should be acting in the best interest of its citizens. When such restrictions are lifted, the Session should seek every avenue to regather the congregation, and if the normal location is not safe, to another suitable place and time on the Lord’s Day. In these rare situations, the Session is balancing the principles of honoring the Lord through corporate worship, honoring lawful civil authorities, and promoting the life of the congregation. When the Session suspends corporate worship for a set period of time because of such providential hinderances, it does so with the knowledge and definitive plan of reassembling as soon as possible.
In the Case of a Pandemic
How should these principles be applied in the case of a pandemic when the threat to the congregation’s health and safety is a novel pathogen that is highly contagious especially in mass gatherings? Should the Session approach this situation the same way it does for natural disasters? Even though the two scenarios may seem comparable, there are some critical differences that the Session should contemplate before suspending corporate worship. The issues of clarity and mitigation differentiate the two situations.
In dealing with a pandemic, the Session must weigh the potential risk that is associated with a contagious pathogen in relation to the command of God for corporate worship. Should the principle of acting out of “an abundance of caution” to prevent the possibility of any infection be a greater determining factor than what has been established above concerning the necessity of corporate worship? In other words, is the Session acting in accordance with the DPW when it suspends indefinitely public corporate worship out of an abundance of caution to prevent the spread of a novel pathogen in promoting the health and safety of the congregation? On the surface it may appear to be the proper decision, but under closer examination, the Session does not, and should not, have to suspend worship indefinitely.
Unlike a natural disaster or some other tangible expression of a providential hinderance, the risk to the congregation’s health and safety with a contagious pathogen is subjective and uncertain. With some pathogens, it can be difficult to know with a reasonable measure of certainty who is infected if he is asymptomatic. In fact, some carriers could be asymptomatic to the pathogen all together. In such cases, is it biblical and necessary for the Session to suspend public corporate worship for the whole congregation? Instead, should not the Session maintain corporate worship for those who are asymptomatic while advising others to refrain from attending until their symptoms have cleared? Has this not been the faithful practice of the church throughout its history in times of pandemic and seasonal illnesses? When has the church ever suspended its corporate worship indefinitely because of a pathogen? Even during the “Black Death,” which at the height of the epidemic the mortality rate ranged from 30 to more than 90 percent,[34] Martin Luther stood fast to the need for God’s people to gather for corporate worship knowing the risk that was involved in such gatherings. He discouraged taking any unnecessary risks of being exposed to or exposing others to the contagion, but the duty for those who were healthy and asymptomatic, both ministers and congregants, was to gather for worship.
Those who are engaged in a spiritual ministry such as preachers and pastors must likewise remain steadfast before the peril of death. We have a plain command from Christ, “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep but the hireling sees the wolf coming and flees” [John 10:11]. For when people are dying, they most need a spiritual ministry which strengthens and comforts their consciences by word and sacrament and in faith overcomes death (Emphasis added).[35]
Because this letter will go out in print for people to read, I regard it useful to add some brief instructions on how one should care and provide for the soul in time of death. We have done this orally from the pulpit, and still do so every day in fulfilment of the ministry to which we have been called as pastors. First, one must admonish the people to attend church and listen to the sermon so that they learn through God’s word how to live and how to die. It must be noted that those who are so uncouth and wicked as to despise God’s word while they are in good health should be left unattended when they are sick unless they demonstrate their remorse and repentance with great earnestness, tears, and lamentation. A person who wants to live like a heathen or a dog and does not publicly repent should not expect us to administer the sacrament to him or have us count him a Christian. Let him die as he has lived because we shall not throw pearls before swine nor give to dogs what is holy [Matt. 7:6]. Sad to say, there are many churlish, hardened ruffians who do not care for their souls when they live or when they die. They simply lie down and die like unthinking hulks. Second, everyone should prepare in time and get ready for death by going to confession and taking the sacrament once every week or fortnight… Those who have been careless and negligent in these matters must account for themselves. That is their own fault. After all, we cannot set up a private pulpit and altar daily at their bedside simply because they have despised the public pulpit and altar to which God has summoned and called them (Emphasis added).[36]
Clearly, Luther did not minimize the risk of infection and potential death that the Black Death posed to all, but that threat did not eclipse the need for God’s people who were healthy and able to gather for corporate worship. Not even the possibility of being exposed to the pathogen or unwittingly spreading it to others was sufficient to suspend corporate worship despite the tangible destruction it was having on people’s lives.
Unlike a natural disaster and its immediate affects, the risk that is involved with a contagious pathogen in gravely compromising the congregation’s health and safety is uncertain. Therefore, the Session should not base its decision to suspend corporate worship, which is explicitly commanded in Scripture, on some uncertain probability that those who are gathered may become infected. Instead, the Session can make reasonable efforts to mitigate the spread of the pathogen while continuing corporate worship. This approach honors both the need to gather for corporate worship on the Lord’s Day and to promote the life of others.
The Session does have the authority to make reasonable adjustment to the circumstances[37] of corporate worship in order to mitigate the potential spread of a pathogen. Based on the specific needs and circumstances of its congregation and its facilities, the Session can alter the times and places of corporate worship to ensure the health and safety of those gathered, to a reasonable degree. The Session can institute guidelines and protocols that greatly limit the potential threat of infection and still conduct corporate worship with all the ordinary parts of public worship.[38] In so doing, both priorities are honored in good conscience. Furthermore, those who are symptomatic of disease should be directed to stay home for the sake of others. Lastly, if there are members of the congregation who are at high risk for severe illness or potentially death due to the pathogen (those who have underlying medical conditions that greatly endanger them), they likewise may be encouraged to stay home. However, if they decide in good conscience knowing the risk involved in gathering with others, they should not be prohibited from attending. That is a decision each congregant is at liberty to make in seeking to honor the Lord.
So even in a season with a contagious pathogen, the Session can properly exercise its authority in accordance with the DPW to adjust the time and place of corporate worship to effectively mitigate the spread of a pathogen. Undoubtedly, no number of precautions is fool proof (considering the limitations of human behavior), but within reason and some degree of certainty (no one is guaranteed his next breath since there is even some risk in driving to worship) the Session can implement the appropriate and necessary mitigation measures to provide a safe environment to conduct corporate worship. The Session’s aim in such times is to uphold the biblical mandate for public corporate worship without putting the congregation at an unnecessary risk of infection and illness while not compromising anyone’s conscience. In God’s providence all three of these priorities can be pursued when the Session is willing to be creative, flexible, and committed to honoring the Lord.
Seth Yi is a Minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and is Pastor of Newberry ARP in Newberry, SC.

[1] Throughout this paper, “public corporate worship” (FOG 3.2) or public worship or corporate worship is defined in accordance with the DPW as “a holy convocation in which the Triune God meets with and ministers to His assembled covenant people through Word and sacrament, and His people respond with praise, thanksgiving, repentance, confession of sin, supplication, and confession of faith.” (3.6) It is to be understood in the narrow sense of particular occasions of worship that are public, formal, and planned. (DPW 3.3 and 3.4)
[2] DPW 2.5 The service of worship shall be under the authority of the minister and the session.
[3] The possessive pronoun “its” will be used to refer to the Session as in FOG 6.6.
[4] FOG 4.4 (RESPONSIBILITY OF CHURCH MEMBERS) Church members are required to: A. Make diligent use of the means of grace. (Is not corporate worship a primary, if not essential, means of grace?) B. Share faithfully in the worship and service of the Church. F. Submit to the authority of the elders (emphasis added).
[5] The minister, the moderator of the Session, is a member of a Presbytery but he is under similar obligations according to his ordination vows.
[6] FOG 6.4, also 6.5 and 6.6.
[7] For example, in a congregation if several households, as much as half or more, will not be present for corporate worship on a particular Sunday for various reasons (vacation, illness, work, travel, etc.), the Session should not and cannot suspend corporate worship that Sunday. This issue will be developed later in the article.
[8] FOG 3.1.
[9] The conjunction “and” requires that both attributes be present. It implies inclusiveness. By saying “A and B” (or “A, B, C,…., and T”), it means BOTH A and B are required. This understanding of “and” will be critical in clarifying the responsibility of the Session.
[10] Worship with respect to a congregation is specified as “public corporate worship” FOG 3.2.
[11] The meaning of “regular” should be governed by the Standards. Based on the Fourth Commandment, the Sabbath is to be observed on a weekly basis.
[12] 3.2.
[13] The means by which a congregation glorifies God are listed (by conducting…, bringing…, building…, and preparing…) and joined by the conjunction “and” which implies that all these means are necessary and must be included.
[14] See footnote #2.
[15] FOG 3.2.
[16] Footnote #28 to FOG 3.25.F. (The Congregational Meeting) The presiding officer of the meeting shall determine the meaning of “present” in light of electronic media.
[17] Corporately is an adverb based on the adjective corporate. Corporate is borrowed from Latin corporātus, past participle of corporāre “to form into a body, form (an organized social group),” verbal derivative of corpor-, corpus “body, organized group of people.”
[18] “Also” is used here to mean “in addition to” which implies inclusion.
[19] This pattern is born out in the Reformed Presbyterian heritage with the promotion of directories of private/family worship.
[20] Acts 20:7 “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread.” συνάγω: BDG 2. bring or call together, gather a number of persons. Arndt, William et al. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature, 1979: 782. This pattern is continued in the early church in the second century. Justin Martyr (ca. 100–ca. 165), writing about A.D. 160 in his Apology, says, “On the day which is called Sunday, all who live in the cities or in the countryside gather together in one place” (quoted by Hughes O. Olds in Worship: Reformed according to Scripture, 2002, p. 27).
[21] FOG 6.8.L.
[22] FOG 9.6.A.
[23] Arndt, William et al. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature, 1979, p. 788.
[24] “Corporate Worship: A Means of Grace” in Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, 2003, p.98.
[25] DPW 3.4 “Though no part of worship is tied to or made more acceptable by any place in which it is performed, yet it can be convenient and helpful for particular places to be set apart for worship, especially for public worship.” This statement is not an endorsement for substituting public corporate worship with virtual/live stream services or eliminating the need for corporate gatherings but emphasizing the need for worshipping in spirit and in truth.
[26] These matters include such things “as the order of worship which is to be followed, the appointed time or place for the gathering of God’s people, or the music to be used in singing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” This is not an exhaustive list but what is assumed in this section is that there are aspects of worship which have “been fixed by a definite rule in the Holy Scriptures.” (DPW 2.3) In particular, the day of the week on which public corporate worship is held. The matter of the appointed time relates to the specific time of the gathering on Sunday (i.e., 10:00 AM, 11:00 AM, 5:30 PM, etc.) not what day of the week. This issue is fixed by the Holy Scriptures.
[27] DPW 2.3.
[28] DPW 1.3 “From the creation of the world God has set apart one day in seven as holy to Himself. It is therefore imperative for all people, especially the people of God redeemed in Christ, to gather together in public assemblies for offering to God the worship He is pleased to receive and has revealed to us in His Holy Word” (emphasis added). DPW 4.1 “From the beginning of creation to the resurrection of Christ, this day was the seventh day of the week, but following the resurrection this day became the first day of the week and is called the Lord’s Day.” (emphasis added)
[29] DPW 1.2. The use of the conjunction “and” implies that all three expressions of worship be rendered to God on the Lord’s Day, the “due proportion of time” that God has commanded to be set apart. God has commanded that public corporate worship be offered on Sunday. Hughes O. Olds states (Worship: Reformed according to Scripture, 2002, p. 23) concerning the fourth Commandment, “The commandment means much more than ‘Don’t forget today is the Sabbath.’ The commandment has in mind far more than a mere mental noting of the fact that it is the Sabbath Day when it rolls around each week. It has much more the meaning of, ‘Hold a service of memorial on the Sabbath….’ In Deuteronomy we find that the fourth commandment begins, “Observe the sabbath day” (Deut. 5:12). To remember the Sabbath Day means to observe the day, to celebrate the religious rites appropriate to the day.”
[30] DPW 4.4 “Other days of public worship may be provided besides the Lord’s Day, but it is both the happy privilege and the solemn duty of all God’s people to assemble for worship on the Lord’s Day as they are able” (emphasis added). Concerning other days of worship, R. C. Sproul comments “that there are special services that the church holds in addition to its normal weekly corporate worship” (emphasis added). Truths We Confess, (Kindle Location 8527).
[31] DPW 2.1 “The God who calls us to worship also directs us how to worship. The Word of God given to us in the Holy Scriptures is the only rule to direct us in how we may worship and glorify Him. What He commands us, we must do, neither adding to nor taking away from anything which He commands” (emphasis added). The fourth commandment regulates public corporate worship on the Lord’s Day.
[32] DPW 4.4.
[33] This principle can be drawn from Num 9:6-13; 2 Chr 30:1-5, 13-15, 21-22.
[34] Carl J. Schindler, Introduction to Martin Luther’s Whether One May Flee from A Deadly Plague.
[35] Whether One May Flee from A Deadly Plague, from Luther’s Works Vol. 43, p. 121.
[36] Ibid., p. 134.
[37] DPW 2.3.
[38] DPW 5.B.

Repent or Perish

In Luke 13, Jesus responds to two recent tragedies with a sobering and eternal warning that we all need to heed carefully lest we stumble upon the Rock of offense (1 Pet 2:8). In the first instance, Pilate, no friend of the Jews, mingled the blood of some Galileans with their sacrifices (v. 1). Even though Luke does not explicitly identify who these Galileans were, based on Pilate’s disdain for Judaism and the involvement of “sacrifices,” it is reasonable to think that they were Jews worshipping at the temple. Moreover, it is likely that it happened around Passover since that was the only festival when the laity could slaughter their own animals. To the disappointment of the crowd, likely composed of Jews, Jesus’ reaction to the tragic event is unsympathetic at best and at worst callous. Surprisingly, He does not applaud them as martyrs or unsuspecting heroes. Furthermore, Jesus does not address the political, social, or national issue, but turns the sensation of the event to a call for repentance. To Jesus, what is supremely significant about this sudden loss of lives, regardless of the cause, is that it serves as a wakeup call to the living of the coming judgment and eternal death to all unrepentant sinners.
Then in v. 4, Jesus recounts another recent event where 18 were suddenly killed in an accident. Based on the Jewish historian Josephus (Jewish War 5.145), the 18 victims were likely Jews in Jerusalem. In like manner, Jesus expresses little compassion about this tragedy but reiterates the warning pronounced earlier, “repent or perish!” His response (v. 5) is identical to the first except the word “likewise” (Greek hōsautōs rather than homoios) which is slightly stronger in force and suggests by the repetition a more emphatic call to respond (BAGD 899). Jesus deliberately uses the passions that surround these tragic deaths to warn them about the need for repentance. In so doing, Jesus highlights how tragedy exposes the fragility and unpredictability of life and thus the eternal significance of being right with God. Therefore, no matter how protected or sheltered one’s life may appear to be (clearly not as much as we assumed before COVID-19), death shows no favoritism. Whether we are prepared for it or not, there is an appointed time for everyone to die and face judgment (Heb 9:27).
In both of these instances, what Jesus focuses on is not the occasion, circumstances, or timing of a person’s death, but the inevitability of eternal death for all those who do not repent. In other words, there is a far greater calamity that awaits those who do not repent and trust in Christ than any untimely, sudden death that one could suffer in this life. The Greek word for “perish” (vv. 3 and 5), apollymai, generally means to destroy, to ruin, to die, but here Jesus uses it with the force of eternal destruction (as in the case of Matt 10:28, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Compare also 1 Cor 1:18, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” “Perishing” is antithetically parallel to “being saved” which clearly has an eternal significance.). The death that Jesus warns about is the wages of sin which the soul must pay for eternity. Jesus believes that repentance is so essential in this life that He accentuates these two tragic events to warn His hearers about it. For those who did not have an eternal perspective on life, Jesus’ word would have appeared cold and uncaring.
An important note to make at this point is that repentance is not merely a one-time act that happens at conversion but a way of life. Even though believers are justified by faith in Christ, they continually war against indwelling sin in this life (Rom 7:13-25). Therefore, as disciples of Christ, the call for persistent repentance is a must (Luke 9:23). In writing to a group of churches, John declares in 1 Jn 1:8, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Moreover in Rev 2:1-7, Jesus confronts the church in Ephesus for abandoning their “first love”—their fundamental love for Christ and for one another. Consequently, Jesus declares to them, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” In the same way, we must continue to repent of our sins lest our hearts become dull and hardened (Mt 13:15) and fall short of finishing the race (2 Tim 4:7-8).
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